Saturday, February 25, 2017

Is the Prudent Man Standard Good Enough?

It’s often said that ERISA’s prudent man rule is the highest duty known to law. But is that enough?

Don’t get me wrong – any law that holds human beings to the standards of an expert in any field is a pretty high standard, and one that can be difficult to meet even with the ablest of expert assistance.

I started thinking about this recently when a friend was asking my advice on what he should do regarding the options in his new 401(k) plan. I did what I often do, outlining the pros and cons of various alternatives, helping him to make what I considered to be a well informed – or at least better informed – decision.

I had stepped through all the options and considerations with his plan, a pretty standard combination of automatic enrollment provisions. But then, after asking questions throughout, when I was finished, he didn’t ask what I thought he should do. Instead, he asked what I had done with my own retirement savings.

The process of stepping through my decisions with my friend wasn’t without its limitations. It wasn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, for one thing; my plan didn’t have the same options available to him, nor were our specific financial and familial situations identical.  But it got me to thinking...

Plan fiduciaries have long been reluctant to superimpose their judgments on the participants whose benefit they are charged with overseeing, and with good cause. The financial decisions attendant to participating in a plan (including the decision to participate in the first place) are fraught with the potential for significant disruption, particularly in view of the panoply of personal circumstances that ought to be considered. And while there are doubtless situations in life for which we must do so – the imposition of our best judgments for loved ones not old enough, or no longer able, to do so – most of us have our hands full just keeping up with our own slate of critical determinations.

While we have made significant strides in implementing “automatic” plan designs that help participants get off to a better start than they might have if left to their own devices, it still seems that most fiduciaries gravitate toward the “first, do no harm” standard generally associated with the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath.

A higher standard might arguably be the so-called “Golden Rule,” which sets as its marker that you do to others how you would like them to do to you. How might that apply to retirement plan designs?
  • If you, as a participant, wouldn’t think of setting aside only 3% of pay, even as a starting point, why would you let others do so?
  • If you, as a participant, wouldn’t think of contributing to a level that doesn’t give you the full benefit of that company match, why would you let others do so?
  • If you, as a participant, would (and do) willingly accelerate your rate of contribution annually, why do you let others pass up that opportunity?
  • If you take advantage of a qualified default investment alternative to help ensure that your investments are diversified and rebalanced on an ongoing basis, and particularly if you use that as a default option for new hires, why wouldn’t you do the same for current hires?
  • If you think overinvestment in company stock is dangerous, why do you let participants do it?
  • If you think participants need help making retirement planning decisions, why don’t you accommodate it?
I realize the answers to some, and perhaps all, of these questions are complicated. “My boss wants us to” is surely the answer in some cases, while “Because I am worried I/we will get sued” comes up frequently. The answer I hear most from plan sponsors is, “I don’t know enough about their individual situations to make the right decision,” though one might also reasonably reply, “Because I’m not required, even as an ERISA fiduciary, to do so.”

But as I said, my conversation about a friend’s new 401(k) got me to thinking about the prudent man standard, and how it’s generally applied to plan design standards.

After all, can it really be in the best interests of plan participants, if it isn’t good enough for you?

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

End Note
The original prudent man rule dates back to the common law, specifically the 1830 Massachusetts case of Harvard College v. Amory. From that case came the notion that trustees were directed “to observe how men of prudence, discretion and intelligence manage their own affairs, not in regard to speculation, but in regard to the permanent disposition of their funds, considering the probable income, as well as the probable safety of the capital to be invested.” In the absence of specific directions in the trust agreement, the trustee was to invest as he would invest his own property, taking into account the needs of beneficiaries, the need to preserve the estate (or corpus of the trust), and the amount and regularity of income.
ERISA’s prudent man rule goes further, requiring that a fiduciary must perform its duties “with the care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing, that a prudent man acting in like capacity and familiar with such matters would use…”

Saturday, February 18, 2017

6 Assumptions That Can Wreck a Retirement

The future is an uncertain thing, and planning for uncertainty inevitably involves making some assumptions.

Here are six that, done improperly, can wreck your retirement.

How Long You’ll Live

The good news we are living longer – but that means that retirements can last longer, and medical costs can run higher. But while we’re living longer, studies indicate that we tend to underestimate how much longer we will live.

The Social Security Administration notes that a man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3, a woman turning age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 86.6.

But those are just averages. About one out of every four 65-year-olds today will live past age 90, and 1 out of 10 will live past age 95.

How Long You’ll Work

Perhaps the most important assumption is when you plan to quit working; today most Americans are doing so at 62, though 65 seems to be the most common assumption – and while using 70 (or later) will surely boost your projected outcomes (it both gives you more time to save, and reduces the time that you will be drawing down those savings), it may not be realistic for many individuals.
Indeed, the 2016 Retirement Confidence Survey from the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) notes that the age at which workers expect to retire has been slowly rising. In 1991, just 11% of workers expected to retire after age 65. Twenty-five years later, in 2016, that number had more than tripled; 37% of workers now report that they expect to retire after age 65, and 6% say they don’t plan to retire at all. At the same time, the percentage of workers who say they expect to retire before age 65 has dropped by half, from 50% in 1991 to 24% in 2016.

However, the RCS has consistently found that a large percentage of retirees leave the workforce earlier than planned – nearly half (46%) in 2016, in fact. Many who retired earlier than planned say they did so because of a hardship, such as a health problem or disability (55%), or changes at their employer such as downsizing or closure.

The bottom line: Even if you plan to work longer, the timing of your “retirement” may not be your choice.

How Fast You’ll Withdraw

For years, financial planners had touted the 4% “rule,” a rule of thumb for how much money can be withdrawn from retirement savings every year (generally adjusted for inflation) without running out of money. There’s no real magic to the 4% rule, of course – it’s just the math that allows for a systematic withdrawal of funds roughly timed to coincide with the expected lifespan of the individual. Portfolio returns can impact this, of course, so much so that that factor, coupled with the increased longevity, has these days led some to call instead for a 3% rule.

But whatever formula you use, it’s important to remember that while a low rate of withdrawals might help preserve your portfolio, it might not produce a very comfortable living.

How Much You’ll Earn on What You Save

Let’s face it – if you could predict future market returns, you probably wouldn’t have to be worrying about retirement. But as we all know – and have seen proven time and again over the past couple of decades, markets frequently defy even the expectations of experts.

There are bad investments that can cost you money, and good investments that can help your account grow faster.

So, what should a non-expert assume? It’s generally best to be conservative – one of the biggest mistakes individuals make is assuming outsized returns on their savings. But make sure that assumption is consistent with how your savings is invested. For example, if you have all your savings invested in a money market fund, it’s highly unlikely (some would say impossible in the current environment) for you to actually get an 8% return.

How Much More Things Will Cost

Twenty or 30 years from now, prices are likely to change, and for many, those prices will increase. Consider that, overall, the average inflation rate for 2016 was 1.3%. In 2015, inflation climbed 0.7% with an average running pace of 0.1%, with gasoline prices plunging that year. It’s not that all prices will always go up – but they often do, and might increase faster than your income.

There’s a calculator that you might find interesting at

How Much Differently You’ll Spend

This has two components. Some costs (notably medical) frequently increase in retirement, particularly with the longevity trends noted above. Others – such as commuting costs, and even the “cost” of saving – decrease.

But think – 10 years ago would a “fit bit” have even been on your radar, much less your arm? New products and services continue to emerge – some will make your retirement budget more manageable – others may well strain it.

With all the uncertainty and variables to consider – there is one key assumption about retirement saving that you can, to some extent, control – and that’s “How Much You’ll Save.” Because what really matters in achieving financial security for retirement is how much you save (including the amount of the employer match, if any), and some help in making solid, reality-based assumptions.

Chances are, your 401(k) plan has some resources that will help you do the calculation. If not, or if you’d like a “second opinion,” try the free Ballpark E$timate at Even better, if you don’t know what you’re doing, get help – and if there’s a professional advisor working with your 401(k) plan, that’s a great place to start.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, February 11, 2017

3 Ways to Get Your Automatic Enrollment Plan Out of its Rut

Inertia is a powerful force in nature, and in human behavior. Even the most proactive and engaged plan designs (and plan designers) can, over time, slide from being in a groove to being in a rut.

Here are three ways to reinvigorate automatic plan designs.

1. Auto-enroll all Eligible Participants

Over the past decade a growing number of plans have embraced automatic enrollment, in the process not only simplifying and streamlining the process, but also expanding the number of individuals who are saving for retirement. These days, new hires, regardless of their age, are routinely defaulted not only into the plan itself, but also into some type of qualified default investment alternative, whether it be a managed account, target-date fund, or balanced fund.

However, those who have been employed for some time are often not accorded that convenience. Instead, perhaps because they are presumed to have previously made a decision not to participate, it is assumed that if they were to have changed their mind, or have changed circumstances, they would take it upon themselves to enroll on their own. Or perhaps in some cases, the very success of automatic enrollment gives pause because adding all those existing workers to the plan (along with matching employer contributions) brings with it financial consequences.

Regardless, and certainly if the plan has had automatic enrollment in place for new hires for a time, the better way, it seems to me, is to offer the same opportunity to all eligible workers.

2. Auto-escalate Employee Contributions

While there is evidence that this is changing, for nearly as long as there have been automatic enrollment plans (and it goes back to the early 1980s at least), the default contribution rate has been 3%. Now, regardless of how that became the default of record, eventually becoming ensconced in the auto-enroll safe harbor of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, there’s one thing on which nearly everyone will agree: a 3% rate of savings is almost certainly not enough.

Having embraced the automatic enrollment design (and, with luck, extended that to all eligible workers), you can make automatic enrollment better by helping participants save more by automatically increasing their rate of savings by 1% or 2% per year. There is some evidence that, with a three- to four-year lag, plans that have adopted automatic enrollment do move on to add auto-escalation as an option. But think of the missed retirement savings and security in the interim.

3. Reenroll at Least Once – and Maybe More

A common practice in moving from one recordkeeper to another has been to “map” similar fund options from the old platform to comparable (if not identical) funds on the new platform. In recent years, this mapping process has been improved by not just copying over existing fund choices (which may not be optimal, and may not have been reviewed or updated in a long time), but by reenrolling everybody in the plan to an age-appropriate asset allocation fund, such as a target-date fund.

Reenrollment has some logistical and communications issues, of course. It is a bit like moving every year, and if not nearly as complicated (or costly) as actually changing recordkeepers, it can be challenging to explain, particularly to participants who themselves have slipped into a rut. And you might well be advised to leave participants who have voluntarily elected to opt out of the reenrollment once (or twice) where they elected to be.

But if as a plan sponsor/fiduciary you have liability for the fund choices participants have made (and, outside of a 404(c) safe harbor, you do), wouldn’t you want to take advantage of the opportunity to help participants invest their retirement savings in a fund that is overseen by professionals, rebalanced on a regular basis and invested with some sensitivity to their retirement timing?

Or, as the foregoing suggest, at least have a process in place that not only reminds them of the advantages – but nudges them toward a better result.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

See also:

Saturday, February 04, 2017

What Does the Super Bowl Portend for Your Portfolio?

Will your portfolio fly with the Falcons, or might it be pummeled by the Patriots?

That’s what adherents of the so-called Super Bowl Theory would likely conclude. The Super Bowl Theory holds that when a team from the old National Football League wins the Super Bowl, the S&P 500 will rise, and when a team from the old American Football League prevails, stock prices will fall.

It’s a “theory” that has been found to be correct nearly 80% of the time — for 40 of the 50 Super Bowls, in fact.

Granted, for most of 2016 it might have looked as though it would be right again, following the AFC’s (and original AFL) Broncos 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers, who represented the NFC.

It was an usual break in the streak that was sustained in 2015 following Super Bowl XLIX, when the New England Patriots (yes, those same Patriots) bested the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 to earn their fourth Super Bowl title. It also “worked” in 2014, when the Seahawks bumped off the Denver Broncos, a legacy AFL team, and in 2013, when a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback rescued a victory by the Baltimore Ravens — who, though representing the AFC, are technically a legacy NFL team via their Cleveland Browns roots. Admittedly, the fact that the markets fared well in 2013 was hardly a true test of the Super Bowl Theory since, as it turned out, both teams in Super Bowl XLVII — the Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers — were NFL legacy teams.

However, consider that in 2012 a team from the old NFL (the New York Giants) took on — and took down — one from the old AFL (the New England Patriots, who once were the AFL’s Boston Patriots). And, in fact, 2012 was a pretty good year for stocks.

Steel ‘Curtains’?

On the other hand, the year before that, the Pittsburgh Steelers (representing the American Football Conference) took on the National Football Conference’s Green Bay Packers — two teams that had some of the oldest, deepest and, yes, most “storied” NFL roots, with the Steelers formed in 1933 (as the Pittsburgh Pirates) and the Packers founded in 1919. So, according to the Super Bowl Theory, 2011 should have been a good year for stocks (because, regardless of who won, an NFL team would prevail). But as you may recall, while the Dow gained ground for the year, the S&P 500 was, well, flat.

There was the string of Super Bowls where the contests were all between legacy NFL teams:
  • 2006, when the Steelers bested the Seattle Seahawks;
  • 2007, when the Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears 29-17;
  • 2009, when the Pittsburgh Steelers took on the Arizona Cardinals, who had once been the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals; and
  • 2010, when the New Orleans Saints bested the Indianapolis Colts, who had roots back to the NFL legacy Baltimore Colts.
Sure enough, the markets were higher in each of those years.

As for 2008? Well, that was the year that the NFC’s New York Giants upended the hopes of the AFL-legacy Patriots for a perfect season, but it didn’t do any favors for the stock market. In fact, that was the last time that the Super Bowl Theory didn’t “work” (until this past year).

Patriot Gains

Times were better for Patriots fans in 2005, when they bested the NFC’s Philadelphia Eagles 24-21. According to the Super Bowl Theory, the markets should have been down that year. However, the S&P 500 climbed 2.55%. Of course, Super Bowl Theory proponents would tell you that the 2002 win by those same New England Patriots accurately foretold the continuation of the bear market into a third year (at the time, the first accurate result in five years). But the Patriots’ 2004 Super Bowl win against the Carolina Panthers (the one that nobody except Patriots fans remember because it was overshadowed by Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction”) failed to anticipate a fall rally that helped push the S&P 500 to a near 9% gain that year, sacking the indicator for another loss.

Bronco ‘Busters’

Consider also that, despite victories by the AFL-legacy Denver Broncos in 1998 and 1999, the S&P 500 continued its winning ways, while victories by the NFL-legacy St. Louis (by way of Los Angeles) Rams and the Baltimore Ravens did nothing to dispel the bear markets of 2000 and 2001, respectively.

In fact, the Super Bowl Theory “worked” 28 times between 1967 and 1997, then went 0-4 between 1998 and 2001, only to get back on track from 2002 on (purists still dispute how to interpret Tampa Bay’s 2003 victory, since the Buccaneers spent their first NFL season in the AFC before moving to the NFC).

Indeed, the Buccaneers’ move to the NFC was part of a swap with the Seattle Seahawks, who did, in fact, enter the NFL as an NFC team in 1976 but shuttled quickly over to the AFC (where they remained through 2001) before returning to the NFC (see below). And, not having entered the league until 1976, regardless of when they began, can the Seahawks truly be considered a “legacy” NFL squad? Bear in mind as well, that in 2006, when the Seahawks made their first Super Bowl appearance — and lost — the S&P 500 gained nearly 16%.

As for Sunday’s contest, the Patriots have been here before (to put it mildly), the Falcons just once — and that back in 1999 (in fact, the entire Falcons roster put together has fewer Super Bowl appearances than Tom Brady alone). The Patriots will be wearing white (11 of the last 12 Super Bowl winners were wearing white jerseys, according to CBS News — guess who the exception was? HINT: Their jerseys were green). The Patriots are a slight (3 point) favorite, but then a year ago, the Panthers headed into the game favored by 6.

All in all, it looks like it will be a good game. And that — whether you are a proponent of the Super Bowl Theory or not — would be one in which regardless of which team wins, we all do (but my portfolio is with the Falcons)!

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Editor’s Note: Seattle is the only team to have played in both the AFC and NFC Championship Games, having relocated from the AFC to the NFC during league realignment prior to the 2002 season. The Seahawks are the only NFL team to switch conferences twice in the post-merger era. The franchise began play in 1976 in the NFC West division but switched conferences with the Buccaneers after one season and joined the AFC West.

Why You Shouldn’t Hire Your Brother-in-Law as Your Plan’s Advisor

Last week an advisor reached out to me looking for an article on a topic that comes up with remarkable frequency.

Specifically, this advisor was dealing with a situation where a client was considering hiring their brother-in-law as the plan advisor, and wondered if we had ever written an article dealing with that situation. It’s not the first time I have been asked that, though sometimes it’s a cousin, a friend, a friend’s cousin, or a cousin’s friend.

When that situation comes up – and come up it will – this is what I would tell them:

If you’re a plan sponsor, you’re an ERISA fiduciary.

If you have discretion in administering and managing the plan, or if you control the plan’s assets (such as choosing the investment options or choosing the firm that chooses those options), you are a fiduciary to the extent of that discretion or control. Ditto if you are able to hire individuals to control those assets – including your brother-in-law.

Plan decisions you make as an ERISA fiduciary – including hiring those who provide plan services – must meet certain criteria.

As an ERISA fiduciary you have a legal obligation to act solely in the interest of plan participants and their beneficiaries and with the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to them. Does hiring your brother-in-law meet that test? Would it look that way to a judge?

As an ERISA fiduciary, you’re expected to be an expert — or to hire help that is.

You may not have been told this when you were given this responsibility, but when you, as an ERISA fiduciary, act for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits, you are legally bound to do so at the level of a hypothetical expert. Lacking that level of expertise, the Labor Department says that “a fiduciary will want to hire someone with that professional knowledge to carry out the investment and other functions.” Like your brother-in-law?

As an ERISA fiduciary, you’re expected to fire help that isn’t expert.

The flip side of hiring an expert is being able to terminate that relationship if they aren’t fulfilling their obligations. Think how awkward Thanksgiving dinner will be if you fire your brother-in-law. Think how awkward it will be standing in front of a judge if you should have – and don’t.

Your liability as an ERISA fiduciary is personal.

There are any number of things that can go wrong in running a workplace retirement plan. That’s why it’s important to hire experts – and to keep an eye on them. But don’t forget that ERISA fiduciaries can be held personally liable to restore any losses to the plan, or to restore any profits made through improper use of the plan’s assets resulting from their actions.

It is, of course, possible that your brother-in-law is an expert in such matters, that he brings real value to your plan and the participants and beneficiaries it serves, and that your decision to engage his services is based solely on your desire to fulfill your fiduciary obligations.

If so, by all means proceed – just take care to make sure – as you should with any such hire – to document the rationale behind that decision.

Your brother-in-law will understand.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD